05/09/2014 08:22 EDT | Updated 07/09/2014 05:59 EDT

Poor Diet Choices Hurt Both Humans and the Environment

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Beef sirloin steaks are displayed behind the meat counter at a Publix Super Markets Inc. grocery store in Knoxville, Tennessee, U.S., on Wednesday, March 5, 2014. Publix's sales for the fourth quarter of 2013, were $7.4billion, a 5.3 percent increase from last year's $7.0 billion. Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Scientists have long warned that some of our modern-day eating habits are not only harmful to our personal health but also to the planet. Especially our preference for animal food products like meat and dairy causes more environmental damage than most consumers are aware of. A recent study from France tried to calculate more accurately the real costs of our food consumption on both individual as well as global levels, and the results are not comforting.

Foods with the comparatively lowest nutritional value may be the cheapest to buy but are the costliest in terms of production and environmental impact, the study found. High meat consumption in particular contributes to weight problems and a number of related diseases, and is also responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, wasteful water use, and other depletion of natural resources, the researchers said.

"The food system accounts for approximately one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, and global obesity is on the rise," Dr. Gabriel Masset, a researcher at Aix-Marseille University in Marseille, France, and lead author of the study report told Reuters.

What must be done to make both our food production and consumption healthier and more sustainable for the long term is to focus on foods that offer higher nutritional value at lower cost and with a smaller environmental footprint, the study concluded.

But we also need a sea change in consumer behaviour. Animal food products are the toughest on the environment. Growing fruits and vegetables is far less intrusive but can be labor intensive and therefore pricey. Processed foods, both animal- and plant-based, are much cheaper by comparison but can be unhealthy and are considered to be among the leading causes of the global obesity crisis.

Reducing meat consumption alone will not solve the myriad of environmental problems we are facing today. Nor will it reverse our diet and lifestyle-related disease epidemic. But it can be one of many measures we can take to lead us in the right direction.

"The fact is, most people in the U.S. eat way more meat than is good for them or the planet, but even knowing this, the chances are little that we are all going to become vegetarians, much less vegans,"

Mario Batali, a celebrity chef and restaurateur, told the Environmental Working Group. "But we can focus on a more plant-based diet and support the farmers who raise their animals humanely and sustainably," he added.

To put his money where his mouth is, Batali pledged a commitment to a 'Meatless Monday' policy in his establishments and lent his support for the "Meat Eater's Guide to Climate Change & Health" by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental health research and advocacy organization.

Food choices are a highly personal matter. Most people don't like to be told they are doing something wrong by eating what they want. That's understandable. But knowing the real impact and cost, both tangible and intangible, our behavior causes, should be in everybody's interest.

Fortunately, even on an individual level, we are not completely helpless. As consumers, our actions matter greatly to the respective industries, and they will listen. Already there is a growing public interest in the integrity of our food sources. If that concern for our personal wellbeing expands to greater care for the environment we all live in, progress will be inevitable -- and the sooner we get there, the better.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.


  • American Beef
    Much of the U.S. beef cattle are fed synthetic hormones in the feedlots prior to slaughter. The chemicals are essentially growth hormones meant to increase the net amount of meat produced from each cow, but numerous concerns have been raised (by the National Cancer Association, no less) about the high incidence of hormonal cancers produced as well. As early as 1989, the EEC (European Economic Community) put its collective foot down and said that’s not okay, and banned the treated beef from being sold in any E.U. country, though some of those restrictions have since relaxed depending on the hormones used. There have also been other issues like mad cow disease, leading to China also banning American beef products. Ironically, the U.S. has banned much of the Europe’s beef products, too, because of mad cow disease. Photo Credit: iStock/ Thinkstock Click Here to see 10 Countries That Banned McDonald's
  • Pigs, Cows, and Turkeys Fed Ractopamine
    Pigs, Cows, and Turkeys Fed Ractopamine Safety have slammed the U.S. for its continued use of ractopamine saying it can cause anxiety and an increased heart rate in humans. As noted by the FDA, it can also increases injury and lameness in pigs. The U.S.’s position is that the use of ractopamine favors agricultural trade over the health risks. Photo Credit: iStock/ Thinkstock
  • Farmed Salmon
    As overfishing of our oceans is a serious environmental concern, the U.S. errs in favor of farmed salmon for mass consumption. However, like many other American meat products, farmed salmon is raised on a concoction of grain, antibiotics, and other drugs rendering it not at all as wholesome as we may think it is. Factory-farmed fish are intensively confined and are fed a steady diet of antibiotics and other drugs to combat the unnatural and squalid conditions of the pens. This often results in gray-colored flesh, which is then counteracted by dosing the fish with synthetic astaxanthin made from petrochemicals — which is banned in Australia and New Zealand. Photo Credit: Getty Images News Click Here to see Food Truck Names That Should Be Banned
  • Arsenic-laced Chicken Meat
    Last year the FDA finally admitted that American chicken meat contained cancer-causing arsenic. Despite the fact that arsenic is a well-known toxin and carcinogen it’s often added to chicken feed in the U.S. to help promote growth and kill parasites. In 1999, serious health concerns prompted the European Union to ban arsenic-based feed additives. Even some states, like Maryland, have pushed back on using arsenic in the feedstock — but, by and large, it’s still widely used. Photo Credit: iStock/ Thinkstock Click Here to see 10 Food and Drinks Banned in America
  • Chicken Washed With Chlorine
    Generally speaking, American-raised chickens are bred in incredibly cramped conditions. Thousands of birds are literally stuffed inside massive warehouses and spend their lives standing, sleeping, and eating in their own waste. It makes sense then, that the meat picks up a lot of pathogens. After the chickens are slaughtered, they’re washed in chlorine to rid them of some of nastiest germs. The European Union is not having it. Convinced the process is dangerous to humans because the chlorine likely lingers in the meat, they’ve banned these chemical baths across the E.U. They’ve also banned the chlorine-bathed chicken from the U.S., to boot. Photo Credit: iStock/ Thinkstock Click Here to see 5 Common American Foods Banned Around the World
  • Milk From Cows Given rBGH
    Some of the mercurial concoctions of growth hormones that are routinely pumped into U.S. meat products are not just constrained to the meat alone. rBGH (recombinant bovine growth hormone), for example, is commonly fed to cows to dramatically increase milk production. While legal in the U.S. since being approved by the FDA in 1993, rBGH is not permitted in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, and the entire European Union due to human health concerns. Photo Credit: iStock/ Thinkstock Click Here to see What and Why Schools Have Banned Junk Food